Chris Snowdon has a Youtube radio interview on his blog which I saw today, and found rather intriguing. It was on Voice of Russia, which was rather intriguing. And Amanda Sandford was outnumbered 3 to 1 by plain packet protestors. And there was an outburst by Chris Snowdon in the middle of it. And at the end Amanda Sandford says that the aim is to “drive smoking out of the country”,
I started out just wanting that bit, but – as ever – ended up transcribing the whole half hour show, and have consequently forgotten most of the questions that I had – except that I don’t believe that, since the advertising ban, that tobacco companies have “invested heavily” in making their packets brightly coloured and attractive. Most of the brands retain their traditional livery. Certainly all the rolling tobacco is exactly the way it always was.
I also wondered whether she was trying to suggest that when smokers take their packets out of their pockets and put them on a table, that is in her view a form of ‘marketing’, and that showing people your cigarette packet will constitute ‘advertising’, and you’ll have to keep the packet in your pocket. It certainly seemed to be what she was suggesting.
All of which will be obviated by cigarette re-packaging of the sort that I’m hard at work developing. For the past week I’ve been writing a computer-aided design package for cigarette packets.
Anyway, here it is. I haven’t had time to correct it, so it’s probably full of hideous typos which I’ll try to fix tomorrow.
Presenter of Voice of Russia
Amanda Sandford, Research Manager at ASH,
Amil Panya(sp?), from Hands off our Packs campaign
Chris Snowdon, author of Velvet Glove Iron Fist.
Mark Littlewood, Director-general of Institute Economic Affairs down the line.
P: Will removing branding from cigarette packets prevent young people from smoking?
AS: Yes. We think that removing the colourful branding from cigarette packs will make a difference, will help to reduce smoking among young people. In the UK since the tobacco advertising ban came into effect in 2003, smoking rates have halved amongst 11 to 15 year-olds, from 10% down to 5%. So that’s an encouraging sign. That’s a clear reflection of the importance of the ban. But what’s happened since then is that the tobacco companies have invested heavily in making the cigarette packs themselves the main marketing tool, now that advertising is banned the branding is very much focused on the packs. And research shows that young people find these very colourful, attractive packs much more appealing than a plain pack if they’re presented with both, and this has been done through eye-tracking research and a whole range of different measures. So there is research there to show that this will have a very positive impact in reducing smoking.
P: I’m going to come to you Amil Panya because you obviously are from Hands Off Our Packs campaign. What’s your response if research suggests that … made more interesting for young people, and it does have an effect on them?
AP: We need to discuss this research in more detail, but the only people who are going to more excited about this proposal than taxpayer-funded health lobbies will be people who counterfeit tobacco – criminal gangs, counterfeiters, essentially the black market -. If the government really wants to confiscate branding from legal products which already have high level of competition against the black market, commoditize them, homogenize them., it makes them a lot easier to replicate and it will boost the black market. And the problem with that, why I think – and a lot of people agree with me – that this will be more harmful for children retailers do. It’s illegal for thems to sell to under-18s. But criminal gangs obviously break the law, and they sell on street corners outside schools, and they’re the ones who are going to benefit from this proposal.
P: Already in supermarkets you can’t look at cigarettes, you have to ask for a particular brand and the shopkeeper has to pull a shutter. Isn’t that enough?
AS: No. It’s a step in the right direction. But it’s not going to be enough. Because when a smoker smokes they pull out the pack from their pocket or handbag and place it on the table. Smokers identify with particular brands. It’s a sort of status symbol, if you like. And certainly younger people tend to go for the more heavily promoted premium brands, because they perceive that to be something that’s really cool to smoke. This is something we’ve got to put a stop to, because there’s nothing actually very glamorous or sophisticated about getting ill from smoking. Half of all smokers will die prematurely, and before they die they probably have many years of ill-health through lung cancer, heart disease, or other problems. Smoking isn’t like other consumer products. It shouldn’t be out there being heavily promoted as something that’s an ordinary thing to do. We need to be moving towards a society where smoking is unusual, is out of the ordinary.
P: Chris Snowdon, you’re an author of Velvet Glove Iron Fist, do you think that this is going to have any effect on children, on stopping them from smoking?
CS: No, I don’t. I think Amanda has actually inadvertantly pointed out a couple of the major flaws in this proposal. She’s said that the evidence says that given the choice young people will pick the branded pack over the plain pack. This is self-evident. The point of the policy is that people won’t have a choice, they will have a choice to buy cigarettes and they will all be in plain packaging. The research itself is worthless, because it doesn’t get to the nub of the question. The nub of the question is: do people start smoking because of the packaging of cigarettes? And for that there is absolutely no evidence. And we also know that the tobacco industry don’t think there’s any evidence for it because we have millions of documents leaked onto the interent, private industry documents, and I’ve read many of them, and I’m sure that ASH have read many of them, and if they had some evidence that the industry felt this was a way of marketing towards young people, then I’m sure that it would be regurgitated ad infinitum.
AS: I think Chris is being disingenuous in suggesting that marketing doesn’t work, which is effectively what you’re saying, because marketing and advertising clearly does work, that’s why companies spend huge amount of money on it. And cigarettes are no different in that respect. The fact is that advertising marketing does work.
CS: All advertising, as you know, was banned in 1999. and ASH celebrated, saying that they had a total and comprehensive ban And they were delighted that never again would there be tobacco advertising.
AS: You know full well marketing does continue, and the packs themselves…
CS: No it doesn’t. It doesn’t. I don’t accept your idea that the pack is advertising.Well, it’s not. If a pack constituted advertising, it would already be illegal, because the 1999 Act banned it all. If you believe it’s advertising, take them to court. Take them to court.
AS: But the research does show that children are much more likely to smoke premium brands, and premium brands are those which are most heavily promoted.
AP: Can we talk about the research. Before this consultation was announced or leaked on Friday, the University of Stirling was hired by the department of health to do a systematic review of all the evidence out there whether plain packaging would work and stop kids from smoking. Unfortunately I feel sorrow for all of us who had to read through that document because it was fairly long, but the most important part of that were the limitations on that. They openly admitted that this had never been tried anywhere in the world, so they cannot know whether it will work. And secondly and most importantly, and I’ll read out what it says: “Studies that have been conducted in this research are based on hypothetical scenarios, not truly able to test how individuals would react or behave if plain packaging was to be introduced” Why that’s important is for two reasons. Firstly the research – which is conducted by people who know the answer they want anyway – asks someone What would you do in this situation? So you’re asking someone to rewind a few years and find out what they’d do. But more importantly, there’s a double hypothetical. Because it’s asking the person to then rewind and become a teenager again. What would you do when you’re sixteen AND were faced with this problem ? There are too many leaps of faith to be taken there to have this evidence regarded as in any way as conclusive. That is why we need to stress here that the government has promised an evidence-based policy on drug use. And there is no evidence for this They’ve just passed it in Australia. Let us wait to see what happens in Australia. That’s the key thing, the most sensible thing, that the government can do right now in the UK.
P: Is this too little too late though? If we wait for Australia to see what happens there, and the research is albeit hypothetical, what needs to be done to stop young children from taking up the habit? Is removing branding enough?
AS: Well I think that the point is that, certainly in the UK, the government has adopted quite a number of strong measures to help reduce smoking among both adults and young people, and that’s fine. But it’s obviously not sufficient. We need to do more. And it is right that the government is consulting on this issue. They will be looking at the evidence in this country and elsewhere. Obviously we accept that plain packs haven’t been introduced. So obviously can’t say that it will definitely have this impact, but I think the argument still holds that it is still a form of marketing, and that therefore it’s a logical extension of the tobacco advertisng ban that we have already.
P: We do have another guest. I’d like you to tell us now what what you would tell Andrew Lansley?
ML: I think that this is a ludicrous idea and concept. I think that there are actually simpler much more straightforward things you can do to make sure that tobacco is treated as an adult product, which it clearly should be. For example as I undertstand it at the moment there is no law against me going into a newsagents, buying 100 cigarettes, walking outside, and just passing them on to 14 or 15-year-old children. That would not be a breach of the law. I couldn’t charge for them, but I could procure them for them. So it seems to me that there are some simple enforcement steps we can take to prevent youngsters being able to legally purchase tobacco from newsagents and supermarkets without having to completely strip the branding from packets. What I’m particularly worried about is the precedent and principle that such a move would set. If we are going to do this for cigarettes, is it also true that some of the ways that some of the ways that alcohol products are packaged are more attractive to children than if they were in a plain bottle with a rat poison signature on it? Is it also true that, I don’t know, candy bars in nice glossy wrapping are more attractive to children? We can’t move to a monochrome world based on the view that people looking at two different types of packs understandably say, given the choice, I prefer the one that looks nicer. So I think there are some steps without this enormous leap in the dark that can actually cut down on youngsters smoking. And for adults, I would say it is perfectly reasonable for an adult who has chosen to smoke to allow them to have their cigarettes in a nice-looking packet. I don’t consider that an affront to civilisation whatsoever. So let’s make sure these products don’t get into the hands of children, but let’s leave adults alone. All of whom, every last person, certainly in the UK and pretty much on the planet, is aware that cigarettes contain serious health risks if you choose to smoke them. That battle has been won. Now allow people to make their own adult choice.
P: We have an imbalance in our discussion. Amanda is the only person who is for the branding retreat on cigarette packets. So I’d just like to come to you again, Amanda.
AS: I’d like to pick up on the point that Mark made there. Obviously we do support other tobacco control measures, and Mark mentioned about possibly banning proxy purchasing, adults buying on behalf of children.That is already in place in Scotland, and I think it’s working quite well. We wouldn’t have any objection to that as a measure. Licensing retailers is another important measure to control tobacco use, so that would be helpful. But as to his idea of a sort of domino theory, that where is it going to go next, will alcohol branding be removed and so on, we had all this argument with the advertising ban. No evidence of this whatsoever. Tobacco is unique. It’s uniquely dangerous. Alcohol can cause harm if it’s used, abused, or used in excess, same way as fatty foods and so on. But tobacco is unique, and needs to be treated uniquely because it is so dangerous.
CS: It’s a shame that this is radio, because I just saw Amanda’s nose grow by about three inches. This idea that it’s not a slippery slope is ludicrous. We have right now, sitting in parliament today, a Commons Select committee that are looking into the government alcohol strategy, and on the agenda, written in black and white, is plain packaging for alcohol. Going back to the complete advertising ban for tobacco, the BMA and many other groups are now campaigning for exactly the same thing for alcohol. It’s clearly following a tobacco blueprint. And this personally is what I find most dangerous about plain packaging. I’m absolutely convinced that if this happens with cigarettes then within weeks or months you’ll be having people calling for it to be applied to alcohol and junk food. Which is exactly what happened in Australia. <laughs> To say it’s a myth is crazy.
AS: They may be calling for it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it will happen, ..
CS: Oh I think it will happen.
AS: …because everything must be reviewed on its merits, there’s a very strong case for tobacco, and
CS: That’s quite possible, Amanda, I agree. But the BMA and all these powerful groups are following the same lobbying tactics as used by yoursleves, which have proven to be very effective, and what they have on their side more than anything else is the matter of principle. Once you agree to the principle that the government should confiscate wholesale the packaging of a product and turn it into public propaganda because that product has a risk, then the degree of risk is irrelevant. There are many, may people who die from alcohol abuse, and all sorts of things. There is no principled reason to object alcohol in plain packaging and not cigarettes.
P: Hands off our packets? Tell me why?
AP: Why what?
P: Why should people be allowed to choose for themselves when the evidence is there that smoking does cause heart disease, lung disease, cancer, and you have campaigners from ASH who agree with this decision. Where do you sit morally to say sort of Hands Off Our Packets ?
AP: Morally, essentially we are a mature democracy and a free society. We therefore try to treat people as adults, and tell them that their lifestyle choices are for them to try and sort out for themselves, and their families and their communities. We do not want the government coming in and telling people how to live their lives because it has the opposite effect. And this is one of the key points with kids. This argument has been drawn around with kids. Why do children smoke? No sensible person could possibly think it’s because they see a shiny colour or a pattern. They do it because it’s naughty, they do it because they’re rebelling, they’re doing it because they’re sticking up two fingers up against their parents or society or government, everybody telling them it’s bad for them. This plain packaging hysteria will do exactly that. It will make it more rebellious. I think it’s immoral in itself. I think it’s immoral for the government to be trying to control people’s lifestyle. We need to responsible for ourselves. I want to see a reversal – and this is what we were promised with the coalition – in all this interfering nanny state nonsense in all parts of our lives. Please just let us deal with our own mistakes.
AS: Just to address this issue of adult choice and so on. Bear in mind, at least in the UK, around 2/3rds of children start smoking before the age 18, so I would question whether…
AP: Until very recently it was legal at 16, so that’s not a surprising statistic. Most people who start smoking are young. Until last year it was legal to do it.
AS: Okay, around a third start at the age of 16, certainly while they’re still at school. The point is about… Erm… Sorry, lost the thread there.
P: So what evidence have you got that it will get worse with plain packaging?
AP: I’ll have to be fair and be as open and honest as I wish the opposition would be. We have to make a value judgement. I’ll hold my hand up and say that I don’t have evidence. You cannot calculate this. But you can make a good sense judgement about what’s happened in the past, and how people behave, and how kids behave. I was at school most recently of everyone on this panel, and I’m going to maybe unfairly say, actually, kids smoke because they’re rebelling, and they will want to rebel more.
AS: No. The main reason that children take up smoking is because their parents smoke or their older siblings smoke. That’s the primary factor. But there are other factors which have a part to play, and the marketing and promotion of tobacco is clearly an important factor in encouraging young people to smoke.
P: Mark Littlewood, what’s next if we did see a ban on packaging? How would you see this develop?
ML: That’s my worry. We’ve already mentioned whether intellectually there’s an automatic leap onto alcohol or fast food or other products I think the problem I have with the continual camapaign to restrict tobacco more and more and more, is that It’s endless. Barely a week goes by without some tobacco control measure being proposed. It’s only in the last few days that the ban on dispalying tobacco products in large retail outlets has come in. It wasn’t so many weeks ago that there was a suggestion that we should ban all smoking in private cars, although Amanda didn’t say it, there’s a sort of implication that if you’ve got kids should you be allowed to smoke in your own home. It is just relentless I think that the problem is this: those like Amanda – and indeed like all of us – who are conscious of the risks associated with tobacco smoking,, but those who want more and more control need to sort of spell out When is this battle over? Let’s suppose we got to a situation in which 15% of all adults chose to smoke and 2 – 3% of youngsters under the age of 18 were smoking. Would that be acceptable? Would we actually say: Okay, some people are making daft decisions from their own health point of view, but it’s their own personal choice .Or would there be yet another raft of proposals and ideas and pieces of law to cut this number even further . The number of people smoking tobacco has dropped continually over the last 60 years or so, especially as the knowledge about health risks of smoking has become greater, but I think there comes a point, well the number of people who choose to smoke at the moment, particularly adults, well, that’s just up to them. And we’re not going to try and design a society in which we have got the number down to zero percent, we’re going to assume that the 20 or 25% who smoke are making their own decision, contribute a vast amount of taxation when then buy cigarettes, which dwarfs the amount spent on the NHS for treating any smoking related diseases. When is this over?
P: I want to ask you, Chris. Is this an economy or health issue? How political is it?
CS: How political is it? As far as it’s a prohibitionist enterprise it’s very political because they can’t get to their end goal without endless laws. And Mark’s quite right, there’s an annual campaign now., and people like Amanda turn up and say we’ve got overwhelming evidence for this and that. I’ve noticed that a lot of journalists seem to be getting jaded recently, and I’m not surprised. But the end goal is prohibition. It always has been for many, many years now. I read an article recently written in the journal Tobacco Control in which they discussed: Would it be acceptable if 0.5% of the population smoked, or would that still be too much because too many people would be dying from smoking-related diseases. That’s the endgame. That’s what they need to do. All this stuff about children really is so much hot air. It’s very easy to say ‘Think of the children’. But when people say that they almost always looking at restricting the liberties of grown adults. It’s nothing to do with children. It’s not really anything to do with health. Plain packaging by the antismoking movement’s own admission won’t do anything about existing smokers. It might speculatively affect people who were born yesterday in 20 years time, if tobacco is still legal, which they hope it won’t be.
AS: I think Chris has nailed his colours to the mast very clearly there, and obviously exposing his clear links with the tobacco industry. To come out with such a heartless statement is quite staggering.
CS: What statement.?
AS: About whether it’s an economic issue and not a health issue. Of course it’s health issue. We still have 100,000 people dying every year of smoking-related diseases in this country. And about 300,000 children taking it up. We have to do more to stop it. Unless people like you really want people to carry on taking up an addiction…
AP: We have to stop smoking. We have to stop smoking. Completely. Is that it?
AS: We are working towards a tobacco-free society. Yes. We endorse what Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary, is looking for, because it is just totally unacceptable in the 21st century we have thousands and thousands of people who are needlessly taking up a habit…
CS: <raised voice> It is none of your business!
AS: Of course it’s our business!
CS: <raised voice>You are a busybody of the most classic variety!
AS: We are here to help people who want to quit smoking.
CS: <raised voice>I don’t want your help! I smoke! I don’t want your help! Your help has been a real pain!
AS: Well, you carry on. You kill yourself. That’s fine by you.
CS: But you won’t let me!
AS: Because two-thirds of smokers actually do want to quit. They’re looking for help. Most smokers regret ever taking it up in the first place.
AP: I tell you the flip side of this is that people like me who don’t smoke are actually encouraged to because constantly they’re being told by every angle through government and taxpayer-funded health lobbies to tell us how to live our lives and what to do.
AS: Oh rubbish! Absolute rubbish! If you’re not adult enough to make your own decisions, that’s…
AP: Well, thank you very much. I’m glad you concede that. So leave us alone.
ML: She’s right. A lot of people smoke and want help and support in giving up. And it seems to me that it’s a legitimate health requirement. Go to your doctor and say I need some help in giving up smoking and what would you suggest… there’s a whole range of products… But what troubles me is that Amanda seems to have a problem within a modern and free society people such as Chris and myself can make the decision that we want to smoke tobacco. I smoke about 20 cigarettes a day. I don’t wish to give up. I’m conscious of the health risks. I pay substantial tax on the tobacco I smoke. For Amanda that seems to be unacceptable that I’m choosing to do that…
AS: I quite accept your point of view. You’re perfectly entitled to do that. I’m just repeating the fact the vast majority of smokers recognise that they are addicted, they do want help in quitting, and it’s part of our role to help them to quit, but also to prevent children from ever starting to smoke.
CS: You don’t help them to quit! You don’t help them. ASH have never set up stop-smoking clinics. You’re doing nothing to get snus legalised and encourage people to use electronic cigarettes, things that are actually useful. You have never helped smokers give up. You have been a lobbying organisation since the day you were born. All you do is demand prohibitionist laws, incremental laws moving towards prohibition. You don’t help anyone.
P: But don’t we need lobby group such as ASH to help influence government policy? Because we obviously have people here who obviously come from an economic background and a freedom of speech and a freedom of thought, but there is a space for lobby groups.
CS: If they’re voluntary. But ASH isn’t a voluntary group There are no voluntary antismoking groups, because most people don’t care about it. The average man in the street doesn’t care about plain packaging. No-one’s going to get up on a Sunday and go round knocking on doors saying please lobby your MP for plain packaging. ASH is a state-funded lobby group. It is state-funded activism. Astroturfing by any other name
P: You must defend that, Amanda.
AS: Actually in terms the public support for plain packaging, we’ve already found that almost two-thirds of adults do support it.
AP: I’m going to bring up that poll commissioned very recently by ASH. It was very disingenuous. I’m very disappointed that she brought it up. What it effectively did de facto was put a picture in front of someone of a baby, and said: Do you want this baby to die? That’s pretty much what the poll was. It did not categorically and simply say: Would you support plain packaging?
AS: The whole point of the question is… What is the point of asking a person’s view on plain packaging if you can’t actually show them what it’s going to be like? What we did was we showed them a pack of what it would look like, very clearly with the health warning. That’s the whole point of it, a plain pack with a graphic health warning will be the dominant feature on the pack, and it would it take away the branding. That’s the whole point of it, to make the health warning more prominent.
AP: Just to answer your question on whether this is an economic or political or health issue. We do not know how effective it’s going to be. Potential downsides to our economy are potentially devastating. Our retailers are already spending £16 million putting in a tobacco display ban. Groups like the association of community stores have already said: Our small shops cannot afford this, another whack on us. This is not what the economy needs. We need some growth. And we need less busybodies.
P: I would like a message from you to Andrew Lansley and how you would like this consultation to play out, and how much of an effect it will genuinely will have on whether children take up smoking.
AS: We strongly support the consultation. We urge people to read it and to respond. We think it’s a very important measure that will have a lasting impact to help drive smoking out of this country and make it history.
CS: The public consultation will almost certainly give a majority support to the policy by the way consultation is rigged. If you look at the display ban consultation, which was exactly the same as this one, the state-funded pressure groups such as ASH, DoH front groups, which are paid millions of pounds in taxpayers’ money using that money to round up anyone they can find using email campaigns, website campaigns, and postcards. So it won’t reflect public opinion one bit.
ML: The sensible thing to do is see how it pans out in Australia, the first country to bring it in. There’s all sorts of unintended potential consequences. There’s huge legal battle going on in Australia whether banning packaging is legal. Let’s just step back for a couple of years. If in 3 years time there are huge public health benefits, that the black market economy have been no way assisted by the fact they need to replicate one pack instead of 180, that young people are no longer taking up smoking because they’re no longer seduced by gold leaf, then we would have an evidence base which might support Amanda. But if turns out that it has zero effect, that it’s been very expensive, that the government is being sued, that the black market grows, then we would know that it’s a policy that we wouldn’t want to replicate here.
AP: My message to Andrew Lansley. There is an industry funded by your department, and therefore by taxpayers, which is designed to lobby the government to persecute minority lifestyle choices. It’s got to stop. It won’t stop with tobacco unless he puts an end to it now. So please do that.